Parenting is one of the most important and at times difficult journeys that an adult can undertake. As a parenting educator and former counsellor I have heard so many stories at either end of the parenting spectrum. Ones of delight, joy and unbridled love and at the other end of profound sadness, suffering and grief. I am of the belief that 99% of parents are doing the best they can with what they know. There are times that grown-ups can struggle with enormous challenges like mental illness, abusive relationships, addictions and extreme poverty.
From time to time I receive messages from people who have become parents to other people’s children. Sometimes these are foster carers, older siblings and most frequently grandparents who through some life adversity have become the primary carers of children. Some of these adults have never been parents and reach out for some help and guidance. So this blog is for those who have become parents of other people’s children and much of it will also apply to those who live in merged families.
Every single child needs to know they are loved, valued and accepted exactly as they are. Sounds pretty simple really however in practice it can look very different. Often when a child finds them self in a different home from their biological parents’ home they will be struggling with big ugly feelings. Confusion, fear, anger and grief will also be in the suitcase as they turn up at the new home. Exactly the same feelings will occur from grown-ups in the same situation of a new beginning, and this is a really good place to start the connection process. Change is stressful for everyone – and for children feeling vulnerable it’s tougher – so start with realistic expectations.
The research is very strong about the importance of attachment, or strong loving bondedness with people who are safe and who genuinely care for us. If the children are younger than school age, meeting their unique needs in a consistently caring way that enables them to grow and thrive is not complicated. Plenty of safe touch, conversation, positive interaction, healthy food, good sleep, predictable boundaries and endless hours of play are the ingredients for healthy growth and development of all children.
If children have experienced trauma and abuse this can take more time and energy because building trust – which they would have had broken – does take more time. Firstly engage with the child as you create their safe space in your home, namely where they sleep at night. Allowing them to make some choices will go a long way to helping them feel valued. Buy them a new big soft bear that feels good to hug. That way they will definitely have someone safe to hug until trust and connection is built.
Children who feel abandoned by their primary caregivers may act out their emotional pain through their behaviour and it can be more challenging, unpredictable and oppositional.
It can be helpful seeking some support from a local parenting support organisation. For more complex cases I suggest you explore the Australian Childhood Foundation, as they offer some wonderful support.
Many children yearn to be with their biological parents, even if their parents have been abusive, unavailable or unwell and it is important to keep that in mind. Once you have built a bridge of trust, you can have a conversation with children about what has happened and how they feel and how you can support them best. However please avoid asking these questions before they feel safe. Many children who come from dysfunctional homes will test their new caregivers to see if they will stay or be someone they can depend on. If you have a chance, read Josh Shipp’s latest book The Grown-up’s Guide to Teenage Humans as he describes his own journey in foster care. Thankfully he found one carer Rodney who never gave up and this has allowed Josh to create a healthy, happy life.
Connecting to a child’s heart is like building a bridge between your heart and their heart and I have written much about how to do that.
It may be helpful to keep in mind that it can take 4 to 6 weeks for a new place to feel familiar and comfortable. So hang on for the ride! It can be helpful to allow a child to feel settled in their new home environment – a week maybe or at least a few days – before introducing them to an early childhood centre or school. Remember keep their world as calm and predictable as possible until they find their own sense of safety. Even grown-ups with a pre-frontal cortex can become really anxious and distressed when too many things change at once.
In many ways, settling an adolescent is very similar to settling a younger child. If you can imagine that they have a four-year-old child inside those grown-up bodies it can help to meet their needs more realistically. Being a 14-year-old teenager is a really confusing and uncertain time for those who live with a loving, caring family let alone those who have had their lives turned upside down. One of the toughest things to manage and cope with when living with teenagers is their unpredictable moods, lack of motivation (particularly towards school), their volatile emotions and the difficulty communicating with them.
Expressing big ugly feelings is important for teens and often what they say may sound rude, disrespectful and just plain mean (Yes it will be!). However, if you can still hold a safe place without reacting you will help them to better manage this really bumpy ride. School is like a battleground for many of our teens and so ensuring that your home is a safe base to come home to every day after school is incredibly important. I recommend many of the strategies in my how to calm homes articles and blogs.
Have calming music playing especially nature sounds, use the same essential oils over and over, speak quietly and respectfully to them, even when that’s not what you’re getting in return, and practice small gestures of kindness – this will gradually build the neural pathways in their brains that means the home space will become calmer. If you don’t have a good dog or a pet maybe negotiate with the child the possibility of getting one. We find good pets can open and heal hearts far faster than humans. Giving them something to care for and be responsible for is a good way to develop responsibility without needing to lecture or nag – which is to be avoided as much as possible. Definitely avoid sarcasm, shame and criticism at all times as it is unhelpful to everyone especially children with a past of toxic negative relationships.
Having regular rituals that build connectedness and predictability is also a wonderful way to help build a sense of family. It doesn’t have to be complex; trying to eat together around a table on school nights is just such a simple powerful ritual. Another helpful ritual that can help build cohesion is a family meeting where issues are open for discussion from everyone. This way everyone is able to be heard and suggestions are explored to ensure the family is living with fairness, kindness and respect.
It is also helpful (and simple) to get everyone to agree to three simple rules in your home:
Please try NOT to:
- Hurt yourself
- Hurt others
- Hurt things in the world around us.
These rules cover pretty much any situation that arises and they help us all feel loved and safe from harm in our homes. I have written more about that here.
Caring for teens
If you have a teen who has come to live with you – become informed about what is happening for them. The better you understand the physical, mental, hormonal and brain changes, the better things will go for everyone. Tell them you want to help them become the best expression of themselves. Have them watch my TEDx talk.
Chat and negotiate with them about boundaries especially around technology, money and school. Be clear about your expectations around the big things – sex, pornography, alcohol, smoking, drugs of any kind. Make an appointment with the high school year coordinator so that you can inform them of some background and tell them you are their new champion. Encourage them to stay in touch with suggestions on how to help in this big transition. Support your teen to find a special interest as it is the best way to enable them to make friends. When they do make friends – ensure you make them welcome in your home.
Navigating the journey from child to adult is bumpy, unpredictable and at times plain scary for teens and their key caregivers. I always encourage teens to find their own lighthouse – a significant caring grown up who is not mum or dad – and for many who are raising other people’s children you are that ‘lighthouse’ figure. See this as an enormous privilege not a chore and it will help you develop that positive relationship that everyone needs.
There are so many fabulous online support sites for both teens and parents and carers to access. If you are worried – trust your instincts and search for information to make sense of your concerns. This is a list of some good places to start.
Essentially kids and teens everywhere need the same things – somewhere to sleep, food to eat, someone who cares and makes them feel they matter.
In our busy digital world we can lose sight of the forest for the trees. Anyone who is raising other people’s children, and this includes boarding staff and camp staff as well as all those I have already mentioned, can make a positive difference in the lives of children if they have high positive expectations, a safe home, and a capacity to love, hopefully fiercely and unconditionally. We can all step forward and help each other on this parenting journey because every single child matters and they each deserve a chance to find a pathway to living a meaningful life. You have been given an opportunity to make someone’s life better – there is no greater calling in our world.
A complex relationship
My top tips for raising other people’s children are:
- Jump in with both feet straight away and give 110%.
- Build a sense of genuine belonging.
- Ask for help when you are worried and need some support.
- Be the parent coach/guardian not their parent – they already have them.
- Never ever give up.
- Believe in the power of love and hope.
- Repeat daily and often – I HAVE GOT THIS!